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On the Shortness of Life 

LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA 
TRANSLATED BY GARETH D. WILLIAMS 



(i.i) Most of mankind, Paulinus, complains about natures meanness, 
because our allotted span of life is so short, and because this stretch 
of time that is given to us runs its course so quickly, so rapidly — so 
much so that, with very few exceptions, life leaves the rest of us in 
the lurch just when we re getting ready to live. And its not just the 
masses and the unthinking crowd that complain at what they per- 
ceive as this universal evil; the same feeling draws complaints even 
from men of distinction. Hence that famous dictum of the greatest 
of physicians: "Life is short, art long." 1 (2) Hence also Aristotle's 
grievance, 2 most unbecoming a philosopher, when he called nature 
to account for bestowing so much time on animals that they can live 
for five or ten human life spans, while so much shorter a limit is set 
for humans, even though they are born to do so many great things. 

(3) It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste 
much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous 
measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is 
well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless 
living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally 
presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing 
has passed away. (4) So it is: the life we are given isn't short but we 
make it so; we're not ill provided but we are wasteful of life. Just as 
impressive and princely wealth is squandered in an instant when it 
passes into the hands of a poor manager, but wealth however modest 
grows through careful deployment if it is entrusted to a responsible 
guardian, just so our lifetime offers ample scope to the person who 
maps it out well. 

(2.1) Why do we complain about nature? It has acted generously: 
life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one person's held in the 
grip of voracious avarice, another by the kind of diligence that bus- 
ies itself with pointless enterprises. This one's sodden with wine, 
another slack with idleness. This one's tired out by his political ambi- 
tion, which always hangs on the judgment of others, while another's 
passionate desire for trading drives him headlong over every land 



and every sea in hope of profit. A passion for soldiering torments 
some men, who are always either bent on inflicting dangers on oth- 
ers or worried about danger to themselves. Some are worn down 
by the voluntary enslavement of thankless attendance on the great. 
(2) Many are kept busy either striving after other people's wealth or 
complaining about their own. Many who have no consistent goal in 
life are thrown from one new design to another by a fickleness that is 
shifting, never settled and ever dissatisfied with itself. Some have no 
goal at all toward which to steer their course, but death takes them 
by surprise as they gape and yawn. I cannot therefore doubt the truth 
of that seemingly oracular utterance of the greatest of poets: "Scant 
is the part of life in which we live." 3 All the rest of existence is not 
living but merely time. 

(3) Vices assail and surround us on all sides, and they don't allow 
us to rise again and lift our eyes to the clear discernment of truth; 
but they press down on them, keeping them lowered and fixed on 
mere desire. It's never possible for their victims to return to their 
true selves. If by chance they ever find some respite, they still roll 
restlessly, just like the deep sea, which still swells even after the wind 
has settled; they never find full relaxation from their desires. (4) You 
think I'm talking only of those whose faults are admitted? Look at 
those whose prosperity draws crowds: they are choked by their own 
goods. How many have found their wealth a burden! How many are 
drained of their blood by their eloquence and their daily preoccupa- 
tion with showing off their abilities! How many are sickly pale from 
their incessant pleasures! How many are left with no freedom from 
the multitude of their besieging clients! In short, look over all of 
them from lowest to highest: this person summons counsel to plead 
his case, another answers the call; this one stands trial, another acts 
for the defense, another presides as judge; no one acts as his own 
champion, but each is wasted for another's sake. Ask about those in- 
fluential citizens whose names are studiously memorized, and you'll 
see that the following distinctions tell them apart: the first cultivates 
a second, the second a third; no one is his own man. (5) Again certain 
people give vent to the most irrational outbursts of anger: they com- 
plain about the haughtiness of their superiors, because the latter were 
too busy to receive them when they wanted an audience. Dare anyone 
complain about another's arrogance when he himself never has time 



to spare for himself? Yet the great man has occasionally, albeit with a 
disdainful expression, condescended to look on you, whoever you are; 
he has deigned to listen to your words, he has allowed you to walk 
at his side. But you never thought fit to look on yourself or to listen 
to yourself. And so you've no reason to expect a return from anyone 
for those attentions of yours, since you offered them not because you 
wanted another's company but because you were incapable of com- 
muning with yourself. 

(3.1) Though all the brilliant minds that have shone over the ages 
agree on this one point, they could never adequately express their 
astonishment at this dark fog in the human mind. No one lets anyone 
seize his estates, and if a trivial dispute arises about boundary lines, 
there's a rush to stones and arms; but people let others trespass on 
their existence — or rather, they go so far as to invite in those who'll 
take possession of their lives. You'll find no one willing to distribute 
his money; but to how many people each of us shares out his life! 
Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it 
comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one com- 
modity for which it's respectable to be greedy. 

(2) And so I'd like to collar one of the older crowd: "I see that 
you've reached the limit of human life, you're pressing hard on your 
hundredth year or more; come now, submit your life to an audit. Cal- 
culate how much of your time has been taken up by a moneylender, 
how much by a mistress, how much by a patron, how much by a cli- 
ent, how much in arguing with your wife, in punishing your slaves, in 
running about the city on social duties. Add to your calculations the 
illnesses that we've inflicted on ourselves, and also the time that has 
lain idle: you'll see that you've fewer years than you count. (3) Look 
back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few 
days turned out as you'd intended; when you were ever at your own 
disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind 
was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in 
such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without 
your being aware of what you were losing; how much time has been 
lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms 
of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You'll 
come to realize that you're dying before your time." 

(4) What, then, is the reason for this? Your sort live as if you're 



going to live forever, your own human frailty never enters your head, 
you don't keep an eye on how much time has passed already. You 
waste time as if it comes from a source full to overflowing, when all 
the while that very day which is given over to someone or something 
may be your last. You're like ordinary mortals in fearing everything, 
you're like immortals in coveting everything. (5) You'll hear many say: 
"After my fiftieth year I'll retire to a life of leisure; my sixtieth year 
will bring release from all my duties." And what guarantee, may I 
ask, do you have that your life will last longer? Who will allow those 
arrangements of yours to proceed according to plan? Are you not 
ashamed to keep for yourself only the remnants of your existence, and 
to allocate to philosophical thought only that portion of time which 
can't be applied to any business? How late it is to begin living just 
when life must come to an end! What foolish obliviousness to our 
mortality to put off wise plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to 
want to begin life from a point that few have reached! 

(4.1) You'll find that the most powerful men of high position 
drop words in which they pray for leisure, praise it, and prefer it to 
all their blessings. They sometimes long to step down from that pin- 
nacle of theirs, if they can safely do so; for even without any external 
disturbance or shock, fortune crashes down on itself under its own 
weight. 

(2) The divine Augustus, to whom the gods gave more than to 
any man, never ceased to pray for rest for himself and to seek release 
from the affairs of state. Every conversation of his kept coming back 
to this theme, that he was hoping for leisure; he would relieve his 
toils with this sweet, even if illusory, consolation, the thought that 
one day he would live for himself. (3) In a letter that he sent to the 
senate, when he had given an assurance that his retirement would 
not be wanting in dignity and not be inconsistent with his former 
prestige, I find the following words: "But such things are more im- 
pressive in their fulfillment than in their promise. Yet my deep desire 
for that time, which I have long prayed for, has led me to anticipate 
something of its delight by the pleasure of words, since the joy of 
that reality is still slow in coming." 4 (4) Leisure seemed such a desir- 
able thing that, because he couldn't enjoy it in reality, he enjoyed the 
thought of it in advance. He who saw that the world depended on 
him and him alone, who determined the fortunes of individuals and 



nations, he was happiest in looking forward to that day on which he 
would lay aside his greatness. (5) He knew by experience how much 
sweat was wrung from him by those blessings that gleamed the world 
over; he knew the scale of the hidden anxieties they veiled. 5 Forced 
to contend in arms first with his fellow citizens, then with his col- 
leagues, and finally with his relatives, he shed blood by land and sea. 
Driven by war through Macedonia, Sicily, Egypt, Syria, and Asia and 
almost every known land, he turned his armies to foreign wars when 
they were weary of slaughtering Romans. While he was pacifying the 
Alps and subjugating enemies embedded in the heart of the peace- 
ful empire, and while he was extending its boundaries beyond the 
Rhine and Euphrates and Danube, in the city itself Murena, Caepio, 
Lepidus, Egnatius, and others were whetting their swords against 
him. (6) He had not yet escaped their intrigues when his daughter 
and so many noble paramours, bound by adultery as if by an oath of 
allegiance, kept causing him alarm in his now-failing years — as did 
Iullus and a woman once again posing a threat with her Antony. 6 He 
had cut away these sores, limbs and all, but others kept growing up 
in their place; as if overburdened with blood, the body politic was 
always hemorrhaging somewhere. That is why Augustus prayed for 
leisure, and why he found relief from his labors in hoping for it and 
thinking of it; this was the prayer of the man who could grant the 
prayers of other men. 

(5.1) Marcus Cicero was storm-tossed among the likes of Catiline 
and Clodius, of Pompey and Crassus, declared enemies on the one 
side, doubtful friends on the other. 7 He was buffeted along with the 
ship of state, which he tried to keep steady as it was going down, but 
he was finally swept away. He was neither at ease in prosperity nor 
capable of withstanding adversity; how many times does he curse 
that very consulship of his, 8 which he had extolled not without rea- 
son but without ceasing! (2) How pitiful are the words that he wrings 
from himself in a letter written to Atticus, when the elder Pompey 
had been defeated and his son was still trying to revive his shattered 
forces in Spain! 9 "You ask," he says, "what I'm doing here? I'm linger- 
ing in my Tusculan estate, half-free." 10 After that, he goes on to other 
statements in which he bemoans his former life, complains about 
the present, and despairs of the future. (3) "Half-free," Cicero said 
of himself. But needless to say, the sage will never resort to such an 



abject term. He will never be half-free but will always enjoy complete 
and unalloyed liberty. Not subject to any constraints, he will be his 
own master and tower above all others. For what can there be above 
the man who rises above fortune? 

(6.1) Livius Drusus 11 was a vigorously energetic man who, 
thronged about by a huge crowd from the whole of Italy, had agitated 
for radical legislation and provoked the kind of troubles the Gracchi 
had. But he could see no clear way out for his policies, which he was 
unable to carry through and which, once started, it was no longer 
an option to abandon. He is said to have cursed the life of constant 
activity that he'd led from its very beginnings, saying that he was the 
only person who had never had a holiday even as a boy. While he 
was still a ward and had yet to assume the adult toga, he ventured to 
plead before juries on behalf of defendants and to exert his special 
influence in the courts — to such effect, in fact, that it's generally ac- 
cepted that he captured several verdicts against the odds. (2) Where 
would such precocious ambition not find an outlet? You might have 
known that such premature presumptuousness would lead to disaster 
both for him and for the state. And so it was too late when he began 
complaining that he'd never had a holiday, since he'd been a trouble- 
maker and a burden to the forum from his boyhood. It is unclear 
whether he died by his own hand. He fell suddenly from a wound 
to the groin; some doubted whether his death was self-inflicted, no 
one that it was timely. 

(3) It would be superfluous to mention more figures who, although 
they seemed to others the happiest of mortals, themselves gave true 
testimony against themselves when they expressed intense hatred for 
every act of their lives. Yet by these complaints they changed neither 
themselves nor anyone else; for after the outburst, their feelings re- 
verted to their normal state. (4) In reality, your life, even if you live 
a thousand years and more, will be compressed into the merest span 
of time; those vices of yours will swallow up any number of lifetimes. 
To be sure, this span of time, which good management prolongs even 
though it naturally hurries on, must in your case escape you quickly; 
for you fail to seize it and hold it back, and you do nothing to delay 
that speediest of all things, but you allow it to pass as if it were some- 
thing overabundant that we can get back again. 

(7.1) In fact, among the worst cases I count also those who give 



their time to nothing but drink and lust; for these are the most 
shameful preoccupations of all. Other people, even if the semblance 
of glory that grips them is false, nevertheless go astray in respectable 
fashion. You can cite for me people who are greedy, those quick to 
anger, or people who busy themselves with unjust hatreds or wars; 
but all of them sin in a more manly fashion. It is those abandoned 
to the belly and lust who bear the stain of dishonor. (2) Scrutinize 
every moment of such people's lives, and note how much time they 
spend on their ledger-keeping, how much on setting traps or fearing 
them, how much on cultivating others or being cultivated by others, 
how much on giving or receiving bail, how much on dinner parties 
which have themselves become business: you'll see that their affairs, 
whether good or bad, allow them no time to draw breath. 

(3) To sum up, everyone agrees that no one area of activity can 
be successfully pursued by someone who is preoccupied — rhetoric 
cannot, nor can the liberal arts — since the distracted mind takes 
in nothing really deeply but rejects everything that is, so to speak, 
pounded into it. Nothing is less characteristic of a man preoccupied 
than living: there is no knowledge that is harder to acquire. Instruc- 
tors of other disciplines are two a penny; indeed, mere boys have 
been seen to master some of these disciplines so thoroughly that 
they could even be masters in the classroom. But learning how to 
live takes a whole lifetime, and — you'll perhaps be more surprised 
at this — it takes a whole lifetime to learn how to die. 12 (4) So many 
men of the highest station have set aside all their encumbrances, 
renounced their wealth, their business, their pleasures, and right up 
to the very end of life they have made it their sole aim to know how 
to live. Nevertheless, the majority of them depart from life admit- 
ting that they did not yet have such knowledge — still less have those 
others attained it. (5) Believe me, it's the mark of a great man, and 
one rising above human weakness, to allow no part of his time to 
be skimmed off. Accordingly, such a person's life is extremely long 
because he's kept available for himself the whole of whatever amount 
of time he had. None of it lay fallow and uncultivated, and none of 
it was under another's control; for being a most careful guardian of 
his time, he found nothing worth exchanging for it. And so that man 
had enough time; but those deprived of much of their life by the 
public have necessarily had too little. 



(6) Nor should you imagine that those people aren't sometimes 
conscious of their loss. Certainly you'll hear many of those burdened 
by their great prosperity occasionally cry out amid their hordes of 
clients or their pleadings of cases or their other respectable forms of 
wretchedness: "I've no chance to live." (7) Of course you don't! All 
those who engage you in their business disengage you from yourself. 
How many days did that defendant of yours take from you? How 
many that candidate? Or that old lady, wearied as she is by burying 
her heirs? Or that character who feigns illness to excite the greed of 
legacy hunters? Or that powerful friend who holds on to you not for 
true friendship but for show? Check off, I say, and review the days 
of your life: you'll see that very few of them, and those the worthless 
ones, have stayed in your possession. (8) The man who's achieved 
the high office he'd prayed for longs to lay it aside and repeatedly 
says: "When will this year end?" The man who puts on the games 
thought it a great privilege that responsibility for giving them fell 
to him. Now he says: "When will I be free of them?" That advocate 
has people competing for his attention throughout the forum; with 
the crowd he draws, he fills the whole place further than he can be 
heard: "When," he says, "will there be a vacation?" Everyone sends 
his life racing headlong and suffers from a longing for the future, a 
loathing of the present. (9) But the person who devotes every sec- 
ond of his time to his own needs and who organizes each day as 
if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next 
day. For what new kind of pleasure is there that any hour can now 
bring? Everything has been experienced, everything enjoyed to the 
full. For the rest, fortune may make arrangements as it wishes; his 
life has already reached safety. Addition can be made to this life, but 
nothing taken away from it — and addition made in the way that a 
man who is already satisfied and full takes a portion of food which he 
doesn't crave and yet has room for. (10) So there's no reason to believe 
that someone has lived long because he has gray hair and wrinkles: 
he's not lived long but long existed. For suppose you thought that a 
person had sailed far who'd been caught in a savage storm as soon as 
he left harbor, and after being carried in this direction and that, was 
driven in circles over the same course by alternations of the winds 
raging from different quarters: he didn't have a long voyage, but he 
was long tossed about. 



(8.i) I am always astonished when I see people requesting the 
time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from 
those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, 
and neither side on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, 
granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious 
commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because its an im- 
material thing that doesn't appear to the eyes, and for that reason 
it's valued very cheaply — or rather, it has practically no value at all. 
(2) People set very great store by annuities and gratuities, and for 
these they hire out their services or their efforts or their attentions. 
But no one values time: all use it more than lavishly, as if it cost noth- 
ing. But if mortal danger threatens them, you'll see the same people 
clasping their doctors' knees; if they fear a capital charge, you'll see 
them ready to spend all they have to stay alive. So great is the conflict 
in their feelings. (3) But if each of us could see the number of years 
before us as precisely as the years that have passed, how alarmed 
would be those who saw only a few years left, and how carefully 
would they use them! And yet it's easy to manage an amount, how- 
ever small, which is clearly defined; we have to be more careful in 
conserving an amount that may give out at any time. 

(4) Yet there's no reason to believe that those people are unaware 
of how precious a commodity time is. They habitually say to those 
they love most intensely that they are ready to give them some of 
their own years. And they do give them without knowing it; but they 
give in such a way that, without adding to the years of their loved 
ones, they subtract from themselves. But this very point, namely, 
whether they are depriving themselves, eludes them, and so they can 
bear the loss of what goes unnoticed in the losing. (5) No one will 
bring back the years, no one will restore you to your former self. Life 
will follow the path on which it began, and it will neither reverse 
nor halt its course. It will cause no commotion at all, it will call no 
attention to its own swiftness. It will glide on in silence. It will pro- 
long itself at neither a king's command nor his people's clamor; it 
will run on just as it started out on the first day, with no diversions 
and no delays. And the outcome? You've been preoccupied while life 
hurries on; death looms all the while, and like it or not, you have to 
accommodate it. 

(9.1) Can there be anything sillier than the view of those people 



who boast of their foresight? They are too busily preoccupied with 
efforts to live better; they plan out their lives at the expense of life 
itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind. Yet 
the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day 
in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The 
greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomor- 
row and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune's hand but let 
slip what's in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What's your 
goal? All that's to come lies in uncertainty: live right now. (2) Hear 
the cry of the greatest of poets, who sings his salutary song as if 
inspired with divine utterance: 

Each finest day of life for wretched mortals 
is ever the first to flee. 13 

"Why are you holding back?" he says. "Why are you slow to action? 
If you don't seize the day, it slips away." Even when you've seized it, 
it will still slip away; and so you must compete with time's quickness 
in the speed with which you use it, and you must drink swiftly as 
if from a fast-moving torrent that will not always flow. (3) This too 
the poet very aptly says in chastising interminable procrastination: 
not each best "age" but each best "day." Carefree and unconcerned 
even though time flies so quickly, why do you project for yourself 
months and years in long sequence, to whatever extent your greed 
sees fit? The poet is speaking to you about the day — about this very 
day which is slipping away. (4) So can there be any doubt that each 
finest day is ever the first to flee for wretched mortals — that is, the 
preoccupied? Old age takes their still childish minds unawares, and 
they meet it unprepared and unarmed; for they've made no provision 
for it. Suddenly, unsuspecting, they've stumbled upon it, without no- 
ticing that it was drawing nearer every day. (5) Just as conversation or 
reading or some deep reflection beguiles travelers and they find that 
they've reached their destination before being aware of approaching 
it, so with this ceaseless and extremely rapid journey of life, which we 
make at the same pace whether awake or sleeping: the preoccupied 
become aware of it only at its end. 

(10.1) If I wanted to divide my subject into categories, each with 
its proofs, I could come up with many arguments to demonstrate that 
the life of the preoccupied is very short. But Fabianus, 14 who was not 



one of today s chair-holding professionals but a true philosopher of 
the old-fashioned sort, was in the habit of saying that we must battle 
against the passions with a vigorous attack, not with nicety of argu- 
ment; the enemy line is to be turned by a full-frontal assault, not by 
tiny pinpricks. He has no regard for mere quibbling, for vices are to 
be crushed, not merely nipped at. Nevertheless, for the preoccupied 
to be censured for their distinctive failing, they are to be taught a 
lesson, not simply given up for lost. 

(2) Life is divided into three parts: past, present, and future. Of 
these, the present is brief, the future doubtful, the past certain. For 
this last is the category over which fortune no longer has control, and 
which cannot be brought back under anyone's power. Preoccupied 
people lose this part; for they have no leisure to look back at the 
past, and even if they had it, there's no pleasure in recalling some- 
thing regrettable. (3) And so they're unwilling to turn their minds 
back to times badly spent, and they dare not revisit the past because 
their vices become obvious in retrospect — even those that insinu- 
ated themselves by the allurement of momentary pleasure. No one 
gladly casts his thoughts back to the past except for the person whose 
every action has been subjected to his own self-assessment, which is 
infallible. (4) A man who's been ambitious in the scale of his desires, 
arrogant in his disdainfulness, unrestrained in prevailing over others, 
treacherous in his deceptions, greedy in his plunderings, and lavish 
in his prodigality — such a man must inevitably be afraid of his own 
memory. Yet this is the part of our existence that is consecrated and 
set apart, elevated above all human vicissitudes and removed beyond 
fortune's sway, and harried by no poverty, no fear, no attacks of dis- 
ease. This part can be neither disrupted nor stolen away; our posses- 
sion of it is everlasting and untroubled. Days are present only one at 
a time, and these only minute by minute; but all the days of time past 
will attend you at your bidding, and they will allow you to examine 
them and hold on to them at your will — something which preoccu- 
pied people have no time to do. (5) It takes a tranquil and untroubled 
mind to roam freely over all the parts of life; but preoccupied minds, 
as if under the yoke, cannot turn around and look backward. Their 
life therefore disappears into an abyss; and just as it does no good to 
pour any amount of liquid into a vessel if there's nothing at the bot- 
tom to receive and keep it, 15 so it makes no difference how much time 



we are given if there's nowhere for it to settle, and it's allowed to pass 
through the cracks and holes in the mind. (6) The present time is 
very brief — indeed, so very brief that to some people 16 it seems to be 
nonexistent. For it's always in motion, slipping by and hurrying on; 
it ceases to be before it arrives, and it no more suffers delay than do 
the firmament or the heavenly bodies, whose ever- tireless movement 
never lets them remain in the same position. So the preoccupied are 
concerned with the present alone, and it is so fleeting that it can't 
be grasped, and even that little amount is stolen away from them 
because they're pulled in many different directions. 

(11.1) In a word, do you want to know how briefly they really 
live? See how keen they are to live a long life. Enfeebled old men 
beg in their prayers for an additional few years; they pretend they are 
younger than they really are; they flatter themselves by this falsehood, 
and deceive themselves as gladly as if they deceived fate at the same 
time. But when some real illness has at last reminded them that they 
are mortal', how terrified they are when they die, as if they're not leav- 
ing life but are being dragged from it! They cry out repeatedly that 
they've been fools because they've not really lived, and that they'll live 
in leisure if only they escape their illness. Then they reflect on how 
uselessly they made provision for things they wouldn't live to enjoy, 
and how fruitless was all their toil. (2) But why should life not be 
ample for people who spend it far removed from all business? None 
of it is made over to another, none scattered in this direction or that; 
none of it is entrusted to fortune, none wasted through neglect; none 
is lost through being given away freely, none is superfluous; the whole 
of life yields a return, so to speak. And so, however short, it is amply 
sufficient; and for that reason, whenever his last day comes, the sage 
will not hesitate to go to his death with a sure step. 

(12.1) You perhaps want to know whom I'd term the preoccu- 
pied? Don't imagine that I mean only those lawyers who are driven 
out of the law court only when the watchdogs are finally let in for 
the night; or those patrons you see crushed either with impressive 
display in their own crowd of admirers or more contemptuously in 
someone else's crowd; or those clients whose duties summon them 
from their own houses in order to dash them against the doors of 
others; or those the praetor's spear keeps busy for disreputable gain 
which is someday bound to fester. 17 (2) Even the leisure of some 



people is preoccupied: in their country retreat or on their couch, in 
the midst of their solitude, and even though they've withdrawn from 
everyone, they are troubling company for themselves; their existence 
is to be termed not leisurely but one of idle preoccupation. Do you 
call a man at leisure who arranges with meticulous attention to detail 
his Corinthian bronzes, which are made so expensive by the collect- 
ing mania of a few, and who spends most of the day on rusty strips 
of copper? Or a man who sits at a wrestling ring (for — shame on 
us! — we suffer from vices that are not even Roman), enthusiasti- 
cally watching boys brawling? Who separates the troops of his own 
well-oiled wrestlers into pairs of the same age and skin color? Who 
maintains a stable of the freshest athletes? (3) Tell me, do you call 
those people leisured who spend many hours at the barber's while 
any overnight growth is trimmed away, solemn consultation is taken 
over each separate hair, and disheveled locks are rearranged or thin- 
ning hair is combed forward from both sides to cover the forehead? 
How angry they get if the barber has been a little too careless, as if 
he were cutting a real mans hair! How they flare up if anything is 
wrongly cut off their precious mane, if a hair lies out of place, or if 
everything doesn't fall back into its proper ringlets! Which of those 
people wouldn't rather have their country thrown into disarray than 
their hair? Who isn't more concerned about keeping his head neat 
rather than safe? Who wouldn't rather be well groomed than well 
respected? You call leisured these people who are kept busy between 
the comb and the mirror? (4) What about those who are absorbed in 
composing, listening to, and learning songs? The voice, whose best 
and simplest flow is naturally straightforward, they twist into sinuous 
turns of the most feeble crooning. Their fingers are always snapping 
in time to some song that they carry in their head, and when they've 
been asked to attend to serious and often even sorrowful matters, you 
can overhear them quietly humming a tune. Theirs isn't leisure but 
idle occupation. (5) And heaven knows! I'd not class their banquets 
among leisurely pastimes, because I see how anxiously they arrange 
their silver plate, how carefully they gather up the tunics of their 
pretty boys-at-table, how they are on tenterhooks to see how the 
boar turns out from the cook, how quickly the smooth-skinned slaves 
hurry to discharge their duties at the given signal, how skillfully 
birds are carved into carefully shaped portions, and how attentively 



wretched little slave boys wipe away the spittle of drunks. By these 
means they seek a reputation for refinement and sumptuous living, 
and their evils follow them into every corner of their lives to such 
an extent that they cannot eat or drink without ostentation. (6) Nor 
would I count among the leisured those who have themselves carried 
around in a sedan chair and litter, and who arrive precisely on time 
for their rides, as if they were forbidden to skip them; and who have 
to be reminded of their scheduled time for bathing, for swimming, or 
for dining: they are so enervated by the excessive sloth of a pampered 
mind that they can't tell by themselves if they are hungry. (7) I hear 
that one of these pampered creatures — if pampered is the right word 
for unlearning life and normal human practice — was manually lifted 
out of the bath and set down in his sedan chair, and asked: "Am I now 
seated?" Do you think that someone like this, who doesn't know if 
he is sitting, knows whether he's alive, whether he can see, whether 
he's at leisure? It's hard for me to say whether I pity him more if he 
really didn't know as much or if he pretended not to know. (8) They 
are oblivious to many things, but they also affect forgetfulness of 
much. They find certain vices pleasing as evidence of their prosper- 
ity: to know what you're doing seems to be the mark of a man who's 
lowly and contemptible. What folly to think that mime actors 18 feign 
many details in order to attack luxury! Truth be told, they pass over 
more than they fabricate, and such a wealth of unbelievable vices 
has arisen in an age that has applied its fertile talents in this one 
direction that by now we can charge the mime actors with ignoring 
them. To imagine that there's anyone so ruined by pampering that 
he takes another's word as to whether he's seated! (9) So here is not 
a person of leisure; you should apply a different term to him. He is 
sick or rather as good as dead; the truly leisured person is one who is 
also conscious of his own leisure. But a person who needs a guide to 
make him aware of his own bodily positions is only half-alive; how 
can he be in control of any of his time? 

(13. 1) It would be a long business to run through the individual 
cases of people who've spent their whole lives playing checkers or 
playing ball, or baking their bodies in the sun. People whose plea- 
sures put them to considerable work are not at leisure. For instance, 
nobody will doubt that those who devote their time to useless lit- 
erary questions — Rome too now has a significant number of such 



people — are busily engaged in doing nothing. 19 (2) It was once the 
well-known failing of the Greeks to ask how many rowers Ulysses 
had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, and also 
whether they belong to the same author, and other questions of the 
same stamp which, if you keep them to yourself, do nothing to im- 
prove your private knowledge; and if you divulge them, you're made 
to appear not more learned but more annoying. (3) And now this 
vacuous enthusiasm for acquiring useless knowledge has infected the 
Romans as well. Only a few days ago I heard someone 20 mentioning 
which Roman general had been the first to do what: Duilius was 
the first to win a battle at sea, 21 Curius Dentarus the first to parade 
elephants in a triumph. 22 So far, even if such items as these hardly 
steer us toward true glory, they still involve models of service to the 
state; such knowledge isn't going to profit us, but it's nevertheless of 
the sort to hold our interest because its subject matter, though empty, 
is appealing. (4) We may also excuse investigators who ask who first 
persuaded the Romans to deploy a naval force (it was Claudius, 23 who 
was called Caudex for this reason, because the ancients termed the 
composite structure of several planks a caudex\ hence the public rec- 
ords are called codices, and the barges which carry provisions up the 
Tiber are still called codicariae in accordance with ancient practice). 
(5) Doubtless also this may have some relevance — the fact that Va- 
lerius Corvinus was the first to conquer Messana, 24 and was the first 
of the family of the Valerii to be called Messana after appropriating 
the name of the captured city; common usage gradually changed the 
lettering, so he became Messalla. (6) But will you also allow interest 
in the fact that L. Sulla was the first to display lions off the leash in 
the circus, 25 though as a general rule they were shown in chains, and 
that javelin throwers were supplied by king Bocchus 26 to dispatch 
them? All right, let's allow that as well; but is any useful purpose re- 
ally served by knowing that Pompey was the first to put on a fight in 
the circus involving eighteen elephants, 27 with noncriminals arrayed 
against them in mock battle? A leader of the state and a man of out- 
standing kindliness, as his reputation has it; among leaders of old, he 
thought it a memorable form of spectacle to destroy human beings 
in unheard-of fashion. "They fight to the death? That's not enough. 
They're torn to pieces? Not enough: let them be utterly crushed by 
animals of massive bulk!" (7) It would certainly be preferable for such 



stuff to be forgotten, for fear that some future strongman might learn 
of it and be envious of an utterly inhuman episode. O what dark- 
ness great prosperity casts on our minds! He thought he was above 
the laws of nature when he was throwing so many hordes of human 
wretches to beasts born under a different sky, when he was arrang- 
ing war between such disparate creatures, when he was shedding so 
much blood before the eyes of the Roman people — people he'd later 
force to shed still more blood themselves. But this same man was 
later taken in by Alexandrian treachery and offered himself to be run 
through by the meanest of his chattels; 28 then at last he recognized 
the empty boast that was his own surname. 29 

(8) But to return to the point from which I digressed, and to 
demonstrate the futility of the pains that some people take in these 
same matters: the same source 30 reported that Metellus, in his tri- 
umph after conquering the Carthaginians in Sicily, was alone of all 
Romans in having 120 captured elephants led in procession before 
his chariot; 31 and that Sulla was the last Roman to extend the pome- 
rium, which it was the custom of old to extend after the acquisition 
of Italian, but never provincial, territory. 32 Is there any more ben- 
efit in knowing this than to know that the Aventine Hill is outside 
the pomerium, according to him, for one of two reasons: either be- 
cause that was the rallying point for the plebeians in secession from 
Rome, 33 or because the birds had not been propitious when Remus 
took the auspices there; 34 and to know countless other items besides 
that are either crammed with lies or improbable? (9) For even if you 
grant that people say all these things in good faith, and even if they 
guarantee the truthfulness of their writing, whose mistakes will such 
items of information make fewer? Whose passions will they hold in 
check? Whom will they make braver, or more just, or more generous 
of spirit? My friend Fabianus used to say that he sometimes won- 
dered whether it was better to apply oneself to no researches at all 
than to be embroiled in these. 

(14.1) Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy 
' are at leisure, they alone really live. For it's not just their own lifetime 
that they watch over carefully, but they annex every age to their own; 
all the years that have gone before are added to their own. Unless 
we prove most ungrateful, those most distinguished founders of hal- 
lowed thoughts came into being for us, and for us they prepared a 



way of living. We are led by the work of others into the presence of 
the most beautiful treasures, which have been pulled from darkness 
and brought to light. From no age are we debarred, we have access 
to all; and if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of hu- 
man weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of 
time for us to range over. (2) We can debate with Socrates, entertain 
doubt with Carneades, 35 be at peace with Epicurus, overcome hu- 
man nature with the Stoics, and go beyond it with the Cynics. 36 
Since nature allows us shared possession of any age, why not turn 
from this short and fleeting passage of time and give ourselves over 
completely to the past, which is measureless and eternal and shared 
with our betters? (3) As for those who run about performing their so- 
cial duties, agitating themselves and others: when they've duly acted 
like madmen, when they've crossed every threshold on their daily 
rounds and passed no open door, and when they've delivered their 
moneygrubbing greeting to houses very distant from one another, 
how few patrons will they be able to catch sight of in a city so vast 
and so fragmented by varied passions! (4) How many patrons will 
there be whose sleep or self-indulgence or churlishness denies their 
callers access! How many who, after they've tortured them with the 
long wait, pretend to be in a hurry as they pass them by! How many 
will avoid going out through a reception hall packed with clients 
and make their escape through a door that's hidden from view, as if 
it were not even cruder to deceive them than to refuse them admit- 
tance! How many, half- asleep and weighed down by the effects of 
yesterday's drinking, will yawn with utter disdain and address those 
wretched clients, who cut short their own sleep in order to wait on 
another's, by the right name only after it's been whispered to them 
a thousand times over by lips that hardly move! 37 (5) Do we suppose 
these clients spend time on morally commendable duties? But we 
can say as much of those who'll want to have Zeno, Pythagoras, 
Democritus, and the other high priests of philosophical study, and 
Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their closest companions every day. 
None of these will ever be unavailable to you, none of these will fail 
to send his visitor off in a happier condition and more at ease with 
himself. None will let anyone leave empty handed; they can be ap- 
proached by all mortals by night and by day. 

(15.1) None of these philosophers will force you to die, but all will 



teach you how. 38 None of them will diminish your years, but each will 
share his own years with you. With none of them will conversation 
be dangerous, friendship life threatening, or cultivation of them ex- 
pensive. From them you'll take whatever you wish; it will be no fault 
of theirs if you fail to take in the very fullest amount you have room 
for. (2) What happiness, what a fine old age lies in store for the per- 
son who's put himself under the patronage of these people! He'll have 
friends whose advice he can seek on the greatest or least important 
matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, from whom he 
can hear the truth without insult and receive praise without fawning, 
and who will provide a model after which to fashion himself. 

(3) There is a common saying that it was not in our power to 
choose the parents we were allotted, and that they were given to us by 
chance; yet we can be born to whomever we wish. There are house- 
holds of the most distinguished intellects: choose the one into which 
you'd like to be adopted, and you'll inherit not just the name but also 
the actual property, which is not to be hoarded in a miserly or mean 
spirit: the more people you share it with, the greater it will become. 
(4) These will open for you the path to immortality, and raise you to 
an elevation from which no one is cast down. This is the sole means 
of prolonging mortality, or rather of transforming it into immortality. 
Honors, monuments, all that ostentatious ambition has ordered by 
decree or erected in stone, are soon destroyed: there's nothing that 
the long lapse of time doesn't demolish and transform. But it cannot 
harm the works consecrated by wisdom: no age will efface them, 
no age reduce them at all. The next age and each one after that will 
only enhance the respect in which they are held, since envy focuses 
on what is close at hand, but we more freely admire things from a 
distance. (5) So the sage's life is ample in scope, and he's not con- 
stricted by the same limit that confines others. He alone is released 
from the limitations of the human race, and he is master of all ages 
as though a god. Some time has passed? He holds it in recollection. 
Time is upon us? He uses it. Time is to come? This he anticipates. 
The combining of all times into one makes his life long. 

(16. 1) But for those who forget the past, disregard the present, 
and fear for the future, life is very brief and very troubled. When 
they reach the end of it, they realize too late, poor wretches, that 
they've been busied for so long in doing nothing. (2) And the fact 



that they sometimes pray for death need hardly be taken as evidence 
that their life is long. In their folly they are afflicted by fickle feel- 
ings that rush them into the very things they fear; they often pray 
for death precisely because they fear it. (3) And there's no reason to 
find evidence that they live long in the fact that the day often seems 
long to them, or that they complain that the hours pass slowly until 
the appointed hour for dinner arrives; for when their usual preoc- 
cupations fail them and they are left with nothing to do, they fret 
without knowing how to apply their free time or how to drag it out. 
And so they move on to some other preoccupation and find all the 
intervening time burdensome, precisely as they do when a gladiato- 
rial show has been announced for a given day, or when the date of 
some other show or amusement is keenly awaited, and they want to 
skip over the days in between. Any postponement of something they 
look forward to is long to them. (4) But the time of actual enjoyment 
is short and fleeting, and made far shorter by their own fault; for they 
desert one pleasure for another and cannot persist steadily in any one 
desire. Their days aren't long but hateful; yet, on the other hand, how 
short seem the nights that they spend cavorting with prostitutes or 
drinking! (5) Hence the mad inspiration of poets too who feed hu- 
man frailty by their stories and imagine that Jupiter actually doubled 
the length of the night 39 when seduced by sexual pleasure. All this 
inflaming of our worst passions amounts to nothing but enlisting 
the gods as setting a precedent for our vices, and giving a license for 
corruption that is justified by divine example. How can the nights 
that they pay for so dearly not seem so very short to these people? 
They lose the day in looking forward to the night, the night in fear 
of the dawn. 

(17.1) The very pleasures of such people are anxious and disturbed 
by various kinds of alarm, and at the very moment when they are 
rejoicing the agitated thought steals in on them: "How long will this 
last?" It is this feeling that has caused kings to weep over their own 
power; the extent of their prosperity gave them no pleasure, but the 
prospect of its eventual end terrified them. (2) When that exceed- 
ingly arrogant king of the Persians ranged his army over the vast 
plains and could only measure its size, not count it, he wept at the 
thought that within a century not one soldier from that huge force 
would still be alive. 40 Yet the very man who wept was destined to 



bring their fate on them, to lose some troops at sea, others on land, 
some in battle, 41 others in flight, and so to destroy in a very short 
time all those for whose hundredth year he feared. (3) And what of 
the fact that even the joys of such people are anxiety ridden? This is 
because they don't rest on stable causes but are disrupted as frivo- 
lously as they are produced. But what do you think their times are 
like when they are wretched even by their own admission, since even 
the joys which lift and transport them above their fellow men are by 
no means unmixed? (4) All the greatest blessings cause anxiety, and 
fortune is never less wisely trusted than when at its most advanta- 
geous. To maintain prosperity we need fresh prosperity, and other 
prayers are to be offered instead of those that have already turned 
out well. Everything that comes our way by chance is unsteady, and 
the hi'gher our fortunes rise, the more susceptible they are to falling. 
But what must inevitably collapse gives no one pleasure; and so the 
life of those who acquire through hard work what they must work 
harder to possess is necessarily very wretched, and not just very brief. 
(5) They obtain with great effort what they desire, and they anx- 
iously hold on to what they've obtained; and meanwhile they give no 
consideration to time's irretrievability. New preoccupations take the 
place of old, hope arouses new hope, ambition new ambition. They 
don't look for an end to their wretchedness, but change the cause of 
it. We've been tormented by our own public office? We spend more 
time on somebody else's. We've stopped toiling as candidates? We 
start canvassing for others. We've given up the vexation of being a 
prosecutor? We take on that of being a judge. A man stops being a 
judge? He starts presiding over a special commission. A man's spent 
all his working life managing other people's property for a salary? 
He's diverted by looking after his own wealth. (6) Marius was done 
with army service, and the consulship kept him busy. 42 Quintius hur- 
ries to get through his dictatorship, but he'll be called back to it from 
his plow. 43 Scipio will go up against the Carthaginians before being 
fully ready for such an undertaking. 44 Victorious over Hannibal, vic- 
torious over Antiochus, he will win distinction in his own consulship 
and act as surety for his brother's consulship; 45 and but for his own 
objections, his statue would be placed in Jupiter's company in the 
Capitoline temple. But discord among the citizens will bring trouble 
to their savior, and after he has scorned as a young man public honors 



rivaling those of the gods, in old age he'll eventually take pleasure 
in an ostentatiously defiant exile. Reasons for anxiety will never be 
wanting, whether because of prosperity or wretchedness. Life will be 
driven on through one preoccupation after another; we shall always 
pray for leisure but never attain it. 

(18.1) And so, my dearest Paulinus, remove yourself from the 
crowd and, storm-tossed more than your years deserve, withdraw 
at last to a more peaceful haven. Consider how many waves you've 
endured and, on the one side, how many storms you've weathered in 
private and, on the other, how many you've brought on yourself in 
your public career. Long enough has your virtue been demonstrated 
through toilsome and unceasing proofs; put to the test what it can 
achieve in leisure. The greater part of your life, and certainly the 
better part, has been given to the state: take some of your time for 
yourself as well. (2) It's not to a sluggish and idle state of inaction 
that I summon you, or to drown all your lively energy in sleep and 
in the pleasures that are dear to the crowd. That's not to find peace 
of mind: you'll find tasks to busy yourself about in serene seclusion 
that are more important than any you've dealt with so energetically 
thus far. (3) You manage the revenues of the world, it is true, as scru- 
pulously as you would a stranger's, as diligently as you would your 
own, as conscientiously as you would the state's. You win affection 
in a post in which it is hard to avoid being hated. Yet it is neverthe- 
less better — believe me — to know the balance sheet of one's own 
life than that of the public grain supply. (4) Recall that energetic 
mind of yours, which is supremely qualified to deal with the greatest 
challenges, from an office that is certainly eminent but is hardly in 
keeping with the happy life. And consider that you didn't make it 
your aim, with all your training in the liberal arts from the earliest 
age, for many thousands of grain measures to be safely entrusted to 
you; you'd shown promise of something greater and higher. There'll 
be no shortage of men of both scrupulous good character and dili- 
gent service. But slow-moving pack animals are far better suited to 
carrying heavy loads than thoroughbred horses; who ever hampered 
the fleetness of these well-bred creatures with a weighty burden? 
(5) Consider, moreover, how stressful it is to subject yourself to such 
a heavy responsibility; you have to deal with the human stomach, 
and a hungry people neither submits to reason nor is soothed by fair 



treatment or influenced by any entreaty. Only recently, within those 
few days after Gaius Caesar died, he was still pained to the utmost 
(if the dead have any consciousness) because he saw that the Roman 
people survived him and still had enough rations for seven or at all 
events eight days; because he made his bridges of boats and played 
with the empire's resources, 46 we faced the worst kind of disaster even 
for people under siege: a shortage of food. His imitation of a crazed 
foreign king of ill-fated arrogance almost came at the cost of mass 
destruction by starvation, and of the general catastrophe that follows 
famine. (6) What was the frame of mind of the officials in charge of 
the grain supply when they were destined to face stones, weapons, 
fires, and Gaius? With the greatest concealment they covered over 
such a great sickness lurking amid the state's innermost organs, and 
with good reason, to be sure. For certain complaints are to be treated 
without the patient's being aware of them; knowing about their dis- 
ease has caused many to die. 

(19. 1) Retire to those pursuits that are calmer, safer, and more 
important. Do you think it amounts to the same thing whether you're 
in charge of seeing that imported grain is transferred to the granaries 
undamaged by either the dishonesty or the carelessness of the trans- 
porters, that it doesn't absorb moisture and then get spoiled through 
heat, and that it corresponds to the declared weight and measure; or 
whether you occupy yourself with these hallowed and lofty studies, 
so as to learn the substance of god, his will, his general character, 
and his shape; what outcome awaits your soul; where nature lays us 
to rest upon release from our bodies; what it is that bears the weight 
of all the heaviest matter of this world in the center, suspends the 
light components above, carries fire to the highest part, and rouses 
the stars to their given changes of movement; and to learn other such 
matters in turn that are full of great wonders? (2) You really ought 
to leave ground level and turn your mind's eye to these studies. Now, 
while enthusiasm is still fresh, those with an active interest should 
progress to better things. In this mode of life much that is worth 
studying awaits you: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetful- 
ness of the passions, knowledge of how to live and to die, and deep 
repose. 

(3) The plight of all preoccupied people is wretched, but most 
wretched is the plight of those who labor under preoccupations that 



are not even their own, whose sleep schedule is regulated by some- 
body else's, who walk at somebody else's pace, and who are under 
instructions in that freest of all activities — loving and hating. 47 If 
these people want to know how short their life is, let them reflect on 
how small a part of it is their very own. 

(20.1) So, when you see a man repeatedly taking up the robe 
of office, or a name well known in public, don't envy him: those 
trappings are bought at the cost of life. For one year to be dated by 
their name, they'll waste all their own years. 48 Life deserts some of 
them amid their first struggles, before the arduous climb up to the 
peak of their ambition. Some, after they've clambered up through a 
thousand indignities to arrive at the crowning dignity, are assailed by 
the wretched thought that all their toil has been for an inscription 
on an epitaph. Some map out new aspirations for their extreme old 
age as if in their youth, and they succumb to weakness amid their 
great and immoderate endeavors. (2) It's a shameful end when an old 
man acting in court for litigants who are perfectly unknown to him 
breathes his last even at the moment when he's winning the applause 
of impressionable bystanders. It's a disgraceful end when the man 
who's sooner worn out by living than by working drops dead in the 
middle of his duties; and a disgraceful end when a man dies in the act 
of going over his accounts and draws a smile from the heir who's long 
been kept waiting. (3) I can't pass over one example that occurs to me. 
Gaius Turannius was an old man of proven diligence who was past 
ninety when, on the emperor's initiative, he was granted retirement 
from his administrative post by Gaius Caesar; 49 he gave instructions 
for himself to be laid out on his bed and to be mourned by his as- 
sembled household as if he were dead. The house lamented its elderly 
master's unemployment and didn't cease their mourning until his job 
was restored to him. Is it really such a pleasure to die preoccupied? 
(4) Yet many have that same attitude, and their desire for work lasts 
longer than their capacity for it. They struggle against their bodily 
infirmity, and old age itself they adjudge a hardship for no other rea- 
son than because it removes them from office. The law doesn't draft 
a soldier after fifty, it doesn't require a senator's attendance after sixty: 
it's harder for people to obtain retirement from themselves than from 
the law. (5) All the time while they plunder and are plundered and 
break in on each other's rest and make each other miserable, life is 



without profit, without pleasure, without any progress of mind. No 
one holds death in view, no one refrains from distant hopes. Indeed, 
some people even make arrangements for things beyond life — huge 
tomb structures, dedications of public buildings, gladiatorial shows 
for the funeral, and ostentatious funeral processions. Yet in truth, the 
funerals of such people should be conducted by the light of torches 
and wax tapers, 50 as if they'd lived for the briefest span. 



Notes 



1. From the first Aphorism of Hippocrates of Cos, probably Socrates' con- 
temporary in the later fifth century bce. 

2. Attributed by Cicero {Tusculan Disputations 3.69) to Theophrastus, 
Aristotle's associate and successor; possibly a simple misattribution, unless 
Seneca deliberately invokes Aristotle as a weightier presence here alongside 
Hippocrates. 

3. A nonmetrical rendering of a poet whose identity is much disputed. 
Cf. 9.2 for Virgil hailed as "the greatest of poets," and Letters 63.2 for Homer 
as "the greatest of Greek poets"; but no clear trace of the dictum here is to be 
found in either. 

4. The letter is lost; Seneca is our sole witness to its existence. Its date is 
unclear, as is its possible relation or relevance to historical reports of Augustus 
contemplating retirement in the first decade of his rule. 

5. Seneca proceeds to give a summary of Augustus's consolidation of power, 
from the death of Caesar in 44 bce to Antony's defeat at Actium in 31; his 
pacification of the near empire (the Alpine tribes, 7-6 bce); and his expan- 
sion of the imperial margins. This emphasis on external gains is dramatically 
contrasted with the threat brought increasingly closer to home in 4.5-6, first by 
domestic troubles at Rome (through the conspiracies of M. Aemilius Lepidus 
in 29 bce, Varro Murena and Fannius Caepio in 23/22, and M. Egnatius Rufus 
in 19), then by sedition in the imperial household itself through the dangerous 
liaisons of Julia, Augustus's daughter, who was banished in 2 bce. 

6. Iullus, Antony's second son, was punished by death in 2 bce for adultery 
with Julia, who is cast here as a second Cleopatra. 

7. Catiline's notorious conspiracy to transform the Roman order by over- 
throwing aristocratic senatorial power was thwarted by Cicero as consul in 
63 bce. In 61 Cicero testified against R Clodius Pulcher, on trial for violating 
the mysteries of the cult of Bona Dea; acquitted by bribery, Clodius took 
revenge by securing Cicero's exile in 58. Pompey and Crassus were allies, with 
Julius Caesar, in the First Triumvirate of 60; Cicero found Pompey in particu- 
lar "a doubtful friend" when he was faced with exile in 58. 

8. Apparendy a Senecan distortion: Cicero's extant writings yield no evi- 
dence of any such detestation. 

9. After Pompey 's defeat by Caesar at Pharsalus in 48 bce, Gnaeus, his 
elder son, was defeated at Munda (Spain) in 45. But the allusion could extend 
to Sextus, Gnaeus's brother, who prolonged Pompeian activities in Spain until 
after Caesar's death in 44. 



10. The words are nowhere found in Cicero's extensive extant correspon- 
dence with T. Pomponius Atticus, his friend from boyhood and relation by 
marriage. 

11. As tribune in 91 bce Drusus introduced radical social legislation, in- 
cluding land distributions for the poor and the enfranchisement of all Italians, 
which provoked vigorous opposition. Drusus was assassinated, but in suggest- 
ing that he committed suicide, Seneca here develops his most dramatic illus- 
tration yet of the need for escape from the pressures of high but dangerous re- 
sponsibility, and of personal fortunes collapsing on themselves (cf. 4.1). 

12. The Stoic notion of "meditation on death" is Platonic in origin (e.g., 
Phaedo 6ye: "true philosophers diligently practice dying"). Seneca repeatedly 
urges such meditation (e.g., Letters 70.18, 114.27) because of the liberation it 
brings from fear of death (e.g., Letters 30.18, 36.8) by anticipating the soul's 
release from bodily captivity (e.g., Consolation to Marcia 23.2). 

13. Virgil Georgics 3.66-7; also quoted at Letters 108.24, 2 6. 

14. Papirius Fabianus, ca. 35 BCE-before 35 ce, was a talented rhetorician 
who, by ca. 10 bce, became a follower of CX Sextius, founder of Rome's only 
indigenous philosophical school. Fabianus's teachings made a deep impression 
on the young Seneca (cf. Letters 40.12, 58.6, 100 passim) as well as his father (cf. 
Controuersiae 2 pref. 1-2). 

15. A likely allusion to the fate of the Danaids, punished in the underworld 
for killing their new husbands by having always to draw water with leaking 
vessels or sieves. 

16. Including those Stoics for whom the "now" point is itself ever fleeting 
and never fully "real" or "here," being a part of the temporal continuum which 
consistently moves along with the Stoic universe. 

17. A spear was fixed in the ground at public auctions, apparently after 
the ancient practice of selling war spoils under the victor's symbol of owner- 
ship. The auctioneers overseeing the sale of state property (praecones publici) 
belonged to the staff of magistrates, including praetors; hence "the praetor's 
spear." 

18. Mime was a theatrical medium for risque and often vulgar realism, 
which Seneca elsewhere presents as having a popular moralizing component 
(cf. Letters 8.8-9). 

19. For Seneca the pedantry of the grammatici, whose numbers grew at 
Rome in the first century ce, ignores the real relevance of literature and philol- 
ogy in nurturing mature judgment. 

20. Unknown; the elder Pliny has been suggested, but with no strong sup- 
porting evidence. Seneca may simply be using a rhetorical device to introduce 
the point in colloquial fashion. 

21. Gaius Duilius; after leading the Roman fleet to victory over the 
Carthaginians offMylae (Sicily) in 260 bce, he celebrated the first naval tri- 
umph in 259. 



22. In 275 bce, after Dentatus defeated Pyrrhus, the Molossian king of 
Epirus; as a hero of the Samnite and other wars, and as an exemplar of humble 
riving, see Consolation to Helvia 10.8. 

23. Appius Claudius Caudex, consul in 264 bce; he crossed to Sicily in 
the First Punic War to counter the alliance between the Carthaginians and 
Hieron II of Syracuse. 

24. M.' Valerius Maximus Messalla, consul in 263 bce, forced Hieron II of 
Syracuse to come to terms with Rome in that year, and celebrated a triumph 
for his capture of Sicilian Messana. 

25. As praetor urbanus in 93 bce; leashed lions were apparently first exhib- 
ited in games at Rome in 104 bce. 

26'. King of Mauretania, who was persuaded by Sulla to betray Jugurtha, 
his son-in-law, to the Romans; he remained on cordial terms with Sulla after 
the end of the Jugurthine War. 

27. In 55 bce, when Pompey celebrated the opening of his new stone the- 
ater in the Campus Martius. Seneca's ensuing protest against public slaughter 
(13.6-7; cf. Letters 7.3-5, 95.33) is already anticipated by Cicero's report {Letters 
to His Friends 7.1.3; cf. Pliny Natural History 8.21) that the crowd was moved to 
compassion for the persecuted elephants. 

28. After defeat at Pharsalus in 48 bce, Pompey sought protection from 
Ptolemy XIII of Egypt, his cliens and possible ward; but while going ashore at 
Alexandria he was murdered by Ptolemy's agent. 

29. Magnus — "Great." 

30. As in 13.3 above. 

31. L. Caecilius Metellus, consul in 251 bce, triumphed after defeating 
Hasdrubal at Panormus (Palermo) in 250; the exact number of elephants is 
disputed. 

32. At Rome the pomerium was the sacral boundary, plowed and then 
marked by stone pillars, beyond which the city auspices (auspicia urbana) could 
not be taken. Post-Sullan extensions are in fact attributed to Julius Caesar, 
Augustus, and Claudius; but Seneca (or his informant) arguably presses the 
point that Sulla was the last to extend the pomerium for legitimate reasons 
{Italian territory acquired). 

33. Twice according to Livy, in 494 bce and then in 449. 

34. In their legendary contest to become Rome's founder, Remus was de- 
feated when, taking auspices on the Aventine, he counted six birds, Romulus 
on the Palatine twelve. 

35. If Socrates effectively founded the skeptical Academy (cf. Cicero Tuscu- 
lan Disputations 5. 11), Arcesilaus (316/15-242/1 bce) was founder of the second 
or Middle Academy, and Carneades of Cyrene (214-129 bce) the third or 
New Academy. 

36. While the Stoic strives to be free of the passions (apathes), Stoic ap- 
atheia did not connote complete impassivity (cf. On Anger 1.16.7). But the 



more extreme Cynic position casts the sage as completely detached, even 
z/rcemotional. 

37. The nomenclator, or guest-announcer, discreetly attends his master. 

38. Cf. 7.3 and n. 12 above. 

39. During his visit to Alcmena, wife of Amphitryon and mother of 
Hercules. 

40. Xerxes, on his campaign against Greece in 480 bce; cf. Herodotus 
7.45-46. 

41. Most obviously, at sea at Salamis in 480 bce, on land at Thermopylae 
in 480 and Plataea in 479. 

42. Gaius Marius won election to the consulship in 107 bce. After Jugurtha's 
defeat, he was elected again in 104, and four more times down to 100, and then 
again in 86. The full impact of the allusion here lies not just in Marius's rapid 
transition from soldier to statesman but implicitly also in the sheer number 
of his consulships, offering their own illustration of how "new preoccupations 
take the place of old" (17.5). 

43. According to tradition L. Quintius Cincinnatus was appointed dictator 
in 458 bce (after defeating the Aequi in fifteen days, he laid down his office), 
and again in 439. The legend that he was called from the plow is usually 
associated with his first dictatorship, but by linking it with the second and 
overlooking the distance between 458 and 439 Seneca stresses Cincinnati's 
restlessness ex officio. 

44. P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (235-183 bce), appointed at age twenty- 
six to the command against Carthage in the Second Punic War. Resentment 
at his successes may have fueled the accusations of financial dishonesty leveled 
in the so-called trials of the Scipios of the 180s; embittered, he withdrew to 
Liternum on the Campanian coast, where he died in 184/83. 

45. As legate serving under his brother, Scipio negotiated peace terms after 
the defeat in 189 bce of Antiochus III, king of Syria, at Magnesia. 

46. Gaius was assassinated on January 22 or 24 in 41 ce. Seneca conflates 
events by connecting a food crisis in 41 with Gaius's notorious construction of 
a bridge of boats from Baiae to Puteoli in 39. Gaius allegedly sought to emulate 
Xerxes' bridging of the Hellespont in 480 bce. 

47. I.e., clients rise early to pay their patron the formal morning call (salu- 
tation cf. 14.4), then escort him in public; the client-patron relationship also 
dictated political and social allegiances. 

48. The consules ordinarii ("normally appointed" consuls, as opposed to suf- 
fecti y or "replacement" consuls), after whom the year of their office was dated. 

49. According to Tacitus (Annals 1.7.2, n.35.1), Gaius Turannius wzsprae- 
fectus annonae in 14 ce (hence naturally an example of special relevance to 
Paulinus) and, still in office, close to Claudius in 48. If, as Seneca has it, he 
was past ninety before the end of Gaius's reign in 41, it hardly seems likely 



that he would still be in office some seven years later. Hence the case for read- 
ing S[extus] with the Senecan MS tradition, and for positing another elderly 
Turannius apart from the impossibly old Gaius — unless Seneca simply exag- 
gerates his age before 41 ce. 

50. To avoid attention, the funerals of children were conducted at night by 
torchlight and taper.